The Quiet American by Graham Greene [Review]


“Innocence always calls mutely for protection when it would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

I used to only think of innocence as a positive term. Innocence is a child, uncorrupted and untarnished by the hardships and realities of life. Innocence is a virgin wilderness, unharmed by human destruction. But innocence, in other contexts, can also be a danger thing.

The Quiet American in a great book that speaks great truths regarding war, history and international politics, as well as great depths regarding the human condition. Below everything, it’s a story about a British journalist coving the the First Indochina War, a fascinating precursor to the American war in Vietnam.

My ‘Reporting 2’ instructor gave me this book over a year ago, and due to the utter lack of time a college senior finds for pleasure reading, this 180-page gem lived on a shelf before I finally picked it up as a quick read between two more sizable novels. Little did I know, I was in for a treat.

The story is based on Graham’s own experience as a foreign corespondent during the war, narrated in first-person by character Thomas Fowler. Fowler is a painfully cynical, aging veteran reporter living in Hanoi, with a beautiful, coveted Vietnamese girlfriend named Phuong. Fowler wants nothing more than for the war to continue so he never has to go home and face his estranged wife who refuses to divorce him. However, for all of his cynicism, Fowler is

Enter Alden Pyle, the aptly named, quiet, innocent American who’s eventual demise to foretold on the first page. Pyle is a young, idealistic college graduate, convinced that a “third force,” so proposed by a fictitious scholar named York Harding, is the solution for Vietnam that neither Communism nor colonialism can achieve.

Pyle also falls hopelessly in love with Phuong, and, again, his innocence blinds him from seeing any wrong in his actions when he steals her away from Fowler. Fowler, on his part, allows it to happen without even resisting, as if his age and wisdom foresee what will happen.

It is Pyle’s innocence, his idealistic ignorance, that leads to his downfall. While the American chapter in Vietnam had yet to unfold when Greene wrote this book, his insight was uncanny at predicting how the model nation of America, riding high after victories in two world wars, took on the conflict with the idea that delivering “freedom” and “democracy” were enough solve the region, and the world’s, problems.

While much of the scrutiny is thrust upon Pyle, Fowler is often critical of himself and the role of the objective reporter. Fowler is repeatedly pinned down by Pyle and other acquaintances on where he stands on the war, but refuses to take a side, despite his respectable knowledge of the conflict. It’s this journalistic conviction that both make him a guiltless, blameless, neutral entity, and yet one that is devoid of meaning or reason to fight for anything.

While uplifting it is not, The Quiet American is a powerful little novel that holds as much truth today as it did when it was written.

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